By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I wrote about the unlikelihood of competition and cultural forces pushing higher education to “unbundle” its degrees and services.

Jeff Young of The Chronicle of Higher Education provides yet another take on that notion. Young says that providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have pledged to democratize education, allowing anyone to become an educator and a learner. He describes platforms like Udemy, edX and MOOC.org collectively as the “sharing economy meets education.”

In one example, a 25-year-old entrepreneur with no teaching experience has made tens of thousands of dollars through his app-building course on Udemy. An Iowa State professor makes $2,500 a month from a collection of online courses he calls the Critical Thinker Academy, and aspires to work on that full time.

abstract image of ceiling of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
Doug Ward

As Young explains, there’s a growing audience for learning among motivated people who have degrees (or not) and want to keep learning but don’t want to pursue another degree. These people aren’t afraid to step outside the traditional realm of education.

“The bigger, more immediate threat to colleges is indirect,” Young writes. “These sites that let anyone teach courses might just change the way people think about the value of education, about the nature of expertise, and about what teaching is worth.”

There are no surprises here. This is just part of a much longer conversation on the role and value of MOOCs and the future of higher education. It is yet another sign of the need for colleges and universities to change, though, and another reminder of the opportunities for those institutions that can effect that change.

More unconventional learning

While we’re on the topic of unconventional approaches to learning, I’d recommend reading Jessica Lahey’s Atlantic article “What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show.”

Lahey profiles Michael Stevens, host of a high-energy YouTube education channel called Vsauce. Stevens takes on such quirky topics as “Is Cereal Soup?” and “What If the Earth Stopped Spinning?” and (shudder) “What Does Human Taste Like?” She writes:

Stevens understands that the best teachers don’t just hurl vast shovelfuls of wisdom at their students, hoping some of it sticks as it whizzes by. Great teachers know that education is a long game, and much of the time, the lesson at hand is not the final destination but an opportunity to contextualize and support future learning.
Stevens’s ability to connect with audiences – his 10-minute videos get millions of views each – goes beyond great titles, pun-filled presentations and sharp visuals, though. Lahey writes:

You don’t learn from a Vsauce video because you put out a lot of effort to do so; you learn because Stevens makes the information matter.

That, perhaps more than anything, is what those of us in higher education need to take away from the popularity of Vsauce, Udemy and other unconventional forms of education: We have to make information matter. We have to make learning matter. We have to make education matter. We have to help students see the connections among the topics we teach, and among the topics our colleagues teach.

That ability to connect – with students and among topics – is a central component of the future of education.

Generate! Blah-blah-blah. Repeat! Blah-blah-blah.

In a post last month, I wrote about Audrey Watters’s list of vapid academic jargon and her prediction that the blah-blah-blah would continue unabated in 2015.

Since then, I’ve run across a wonderful tool called the Jargon Generator, which was created by Andy Allan, a high school teacher in California who maintains a site called ScienceGeek.net.

Allan says he was inspired to create the Jargon Generator after reading new guidelines for AP Chemistry. The generator was modeled on a similar tool on Dack.com.

The Jargon Generator is a must-see amusement for anyone who has slogged through a poorly edited academic journal, suffered through a grant application, endured an administrative meeting or survived a speech by an educational consultant. Just push the “Generate jargon!” button and see such amazing empty phrases as these:

  • We will visualize school-based pedagogy across content areas.
  • We will aggregate shared differentiated lessons within professional learning communities.
  • We will cultivate shared concept maps across cognitive and affective domains.

For even more fun, try an active learning experiment and string together some of the sentences on your own:

We will discern bottom-up paradoxes with a laser-like focus, ultimately integrating synergistic technologies within the new paradigm. We fully expect that to agendize college and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities and operationalize diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

My only complaint with the Jargon Generator is that all the sentences it creates are in active voice. True jargon is dipped from a cesspool of passive:

Bottom-up paradoxes will be discerned with a laser-like focus, and the new paradigm will ultimately be integrated with synergistic technologies. College and career ready interfaces within professional learning communities are expected to be fully agendized upon the operationalization by diverse stakeholders for high-performing seats.

If that doesn’t make you want to run for the exits, you’ve no doubt been reading too much of the Journal of Cooperative Paradigm Processes for 21st-Century Learners. You have my sympathy.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A new study suggests that all students gain when a lecture moves to an active learning format but that black students show even larger gains than white students, Ainissa Ramirez explains in an article for Edutopia.

Empty lecture hall
Photo by Doug Ward

The study examined results from a 400-person biology class at the University of North Carolina over six semesters. It found that black students scored better on tests after working in the active learning format. It also found that they were more likely to ask questions when a class used that format, which involved guided reading and pre-class exercises, team assignments in class, and discussion.

We’ve known for decades that lecture is the least effective means of helping students learn. The study’s authors suggest that lecture falls especially short for black students, saying that it is part of an educational system that has long catered to students who are primarily white and upper middle class. Edutopia goes as far as to ask, “Is Lecturing Culturally Biased?”

Drawing sweeping conclusions from a single study would be foolish. The North Carolina study, which you’ll find here, certainly raises intriguing questions, though, and offers yet another reason to move away from lecture.

Making online course materials easier to find

Well-designed courses are worthless if students can’t find the materials and information they need for learning.

That seems like a no-brainer, but far too many instructors don’t pay attention to how students will look for course material. As Karla Gutierrez of the Shift eLearning Blog explains, effective communication in a course makes all the difference in success or failure.

Gutierrez offers these tips for cutting down on confusion:

  • Keep things clear and simple. That applies to both the design and the instructions.
  • Make the technology invisible. That is, design course materials so that students can find them intuitively and don’t have to do lots of searching. Or, as Gutierrez puts it, “don’t make learners think.”
  • Focus attention. That can be done with images, color, text and other means. The key is to use course design to lead students to the proper material.

I’d add one important element to that list: Ask students. Their feedback can prove invaluable.

Briefly …

Edudemic offers 15 lesson plans intended to help students become better online researchers. … Educational Technology and Mobile Learning offers a list of operators for refining Twitter searches. … Richard Byrne of Free Technology for Teachers offers a useful chart comparing 11 mindmapping tools.Time magazine writes about a survey in which college graduates said their biggest regret was not doing a better job of planning and managing debt. … The Hechinger Report and U.S. News & World Report write about the only two states that have increased per-student spending on higher education in the last few years: North Dakota and Alaska.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Forget the technology. Instead, focus on the humanity.

That’s the advice of Kirstin Wilcox, a lecturer at the University of Illinois-Champaign. Wilcox isn’t anti-technology. Rather, she says, learning technology generally means something that helps deliver class material for large lecture classes, not something that helps students understand literary texts in small classes.

Once-novel technologies like wikis, blogs or online discussions have become passé among students, who see them as yet another form of rote learning, she says, adding: “It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts.”

Classroom blurred with robot
Photo: Doug Ward

I agree. Education works best when instructors make a human connection with students. Innovations in delivery systems shouldn’t be cast aside, though. They provide a means for shifting material outside of class and allowing instructors to spend precious class time on areas that need and deserve the most attention. If done right, it can allow for even more of the human connection that Wilcox espouses. Technology can also help students see texts in a new light by helping them find and visualize patterns. Multimedia tools also provide new vistas for allowing students to explain their thinking.

So, yes, work at making classes more human. Work at making connections with students. Work at helping students learn in a deeper way. Those are essential components of good teaching. But don’t dismiss technology. It will never replace the thinking of a thoughtful instructor, but it can often enhance engagement and learning.

A bleak report on college enrollment

Nearly 40 percent of public universities and 45 percent of private colleges expect enrollment to drop next year, The Hechinger Report says. That means budget cuts lie ahead. A fourth of all universities expect their revenues to decline, Hechinger says, based on an analysis by Moody’s, the bond rating company. It expects those in the Midwest and Northeast to be the hardest hit. That doesn’t bode well for Kansas, where tax cuts have already drained state coffers and funding for higher education continues to slide.

Briefly …

Pete Burkholder writes about the challenges instructors encounter in trying to get students to look at sources of information more skeptically … Only a third of recent graduates say they had a college internship that allowed them to apply the skills they were learning in college, according to a new Gallup-Purdue poll. … Pete Smith, president of the Open College at Kaplan University, predicts that students’ ability to understand how learning has changed them will grow in importance.

Tech tools

A Google Sheets plugin called Flubaroo helps automate grading of multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank quizzes and tests. The plugin, which is free, also makes for easy analysis of grades. … Tim Slade of Articulate shares three helpful tips for working with images in PowerPoint, including the program’s ability to remove backgrounds from photos.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Using technology to help students take risks

Rather than use technology to make education more efficient, why not use it to help students take more risks in learning? That’s the question that Greg Toppo poses in an article for The Hechinger Report. “Good teaching is not about playing it safe,” Toppo writes. “It’s about getting kids to ask questions, argue a point, confront failure and try again.” He’s exactly right. By helping students push boundaries, we help them learn to think more critically, understand themselves more fully, and solve problems more effectively. Technology can indeed help with that. I’ve found that demonstrating and having students try new types of hardware or software often opens up thinking and sparks surprising creativity. My advice: Subvert away.

A good message about learning and doing, eventually

Wired magazine jumped on the sky-is-falling bandwagon last week, declaring, “American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist.” Amid the alarmist words and some self-promotion, though, the article, by David Edwards of Harvard, makes some good points. Edwards argues that students need more opportunities to work in loosely structured environments like innovation labs and culture labs, which give them hands-on experience in using their own ideas to tackle big problems. “Learning and doing have become inseparable in the face of conditions that invite us to discover,” Edwards writes.

statue of child reading a book
Statue at Bibliothèque Saint-Jean-Baptistein, Quebec City, Doug Ward

When new ways of teaching aren’t so new
Buzzwords permeate education as much as any other profession. Often those buzzwords are just repackaged versions of tried-and-true techniques. Katrina Schwartz reminds us of that in an article for MindShift, writing about how school administrators and non-profits push “new” approaches onto teachers even though the teachers have used those same approaches for years. That can be especially disheartening when teachers adopt new techniques, only to have impatient administrators pull back financing. “To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students,” Schwartz writes.

Briefly …

In the Tomorrow’s Professor eNewsletter, Roben Torosyan writes about a book so useful to his teaching that it took him 10 years to finish. … Diverse: Issues in Higher Education writes about the trend of requiring undergraduates to take 15 credit hours a semester to help them graduate in a reasonable time. … The Chronicle of Higher Education writes about a professor’s idea to have researchers explain their work in the style of BuzzFeed.

Tech tools

The message scheduling service Buffer offers a list of useful tools for creating images for social media.DesignSkilz offers a substantial list of sites for downloading free photos.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

Why a phone book isn’t a good learning tool

Daniel J. Klionsky of the Life Sciences Institute at the University of Michigan asks why so many instructors or programs continue to teach facts that students don’t need to know. In an article in Faculty Focus, he uses the telephone book as an example. No one needs to memorize all the numbers in a phone book. The idea is absurd. And yet, many instructors in science courses insist that students memorize facts they can easily look up, just as they would with a phone book. To help weed out the essential from the nonessential, he says that instructors should approach their courses with these questions:

  • How much of the information in our courses do the students really need to know?
  • How much time do we devote to making sure students know when they need a fact and how to look it up?
  • Do our students know what to do with the facts once they find them?

Dropout rates hit record lows

Pew Research reports that the high school dropout rates have reached a record low, 7 percent, continuing a decline that started in the mid-1990s. The dropout rate among Hispanics has declined by more than half since 1993, and the rate among blacks has been cut in half. Even with the declines, though, the number of high school dropouts is more than 2.2 million.

Those gaps that speak volumes

Matthew E. May writes about the creative power of empty space in attracting attention and intriguing audiences. His piece in the Harvard Business Review is aimed at marketers, but it applies equally as well to educators.

Digital technology for education 

Jane Hart has released her annual list of the top 100 tools for learning. The top of the list offers no surprises – Twitter, Google Drive, YouTube, PowerPoint – but the latter part is a good place to look for new tools you might try. It includes some that I’ve found useful, including Explain Everything and Powtoon.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an app under development at Dartmouth that helps measure students’ mental health.

Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education. Compiled by Doug Ward.

That pricey fifth (or sixth) year of college

Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Report writes about the overlooked cost of a fifth or sixth year in calculating the cost of a college education. Ninety percent of freshmen begin college thinking they will graduate in four years, though less than half actually do. … Also, in a disturbing trend, Hechinger reports that the number of homeless students in U.S. public schools has grown 58 percent since 2007-08.

Some trends worth watching

In a report released last week, the consulting firm Michael Cohen Group identified several digital trends in education. The report, which was created in late spring, provides no real surprises yet highlights some of the issues that educators everywhere should pay attention to, including social media, open educational resources, massive open online courses, blended learning, flipped courses, gamification, integration of coding into courses, digital simulations, bring-your-own-device programs, assessment, big data, and adaptive learning.

man standing on dock at foggy lake
Todd Quackenbush, Unsplash

The biggest challenge in educational technology? Managing change.

In its most recent research report, the Center for Digital Education says that technology itself “is never the biggest hurdle” in a changing educational environment. The biggest challenge is managing the changes brought on by technology, including integration into curricula, development of effective personalized learning, and effective training for teachers and staff members who use technology. Above all, the center said, institutions need to help instructors, students and staff member “think about how technology can fundamentally turn old pedagogy on its head.”

A startling statistic from the report: Singapore spends $21,200 per student on education annually, compared with $2,500 in the United States.

The university of the future

U.S. News & World Report recently looked at the challenges that colleges and universities face amid changing demographics, rising costs, a hypercompetitive admissions process, and a growing adoption of online courses, among other things. As part of the report, called College of Tomorrow, U.S. News asked six university leaders to offer their thoughts on the future. They talked about the need for improving transparency, leveraging research, and continuing to challenge students with new opportunities.

The most pessimistic, or perhaps realistic, was Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University. Mendenhall said higher education in the future would probably look a lot like it does today, given the resistance to change on college campuses. He sees a need for change, pointing to areas like accountability and the growth in nontraditional students, and says that colleges that don’t may not survive.

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic, touched on areas I see as among the most important for the future. She wrote, “Students need to acquire new skills for this digitally interconnected environment, including the ability to ‘translate’ between and among disciplines and sectors. They must learn to operate effectively and ethically in virtual communities, immersive environments, and in blended worlds.”

How millennial are you?

Finally, educators need to do a better job of understanding all their students, including Generation Z, but Pew Research republished a four-year-old but still relevant quiz last week about understanding millennials. It’s worth a look.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.